22 September 2010

The Attraction of Populist Politics in Germany

Democracy is about giving people what they want, right?  And if the political leaders aren't giving the people what they want, then surely opposition leaders should fill the gap?

Across Europe and the United States, politicians and policy wonks are getting a harsh lesson in democratic politics.  For instance, in Sweden's election over the weekend, a lurch to the right has a party with neo-Nazi roots holding the balance of parliamentary power, a change driven by concerns about immigration.  The US has seen its own political insurgency in the form of the Tea Party movement.

Germany has not been immune to such issues, including its own conflicts over immigration, fueling the far right.  With respect to energy policy I recently and approvingly discussed Angela Merkel's negotiated agreement to extend the life of Germany's nuclear power plants, using the resulting windfall to invest in clean energy innovation.  This agreement is now at risk, due to the harsh realities of populist politics.

Following a protest against the nuclear extension plan over the weekend in Berlin involving more than 100,000 people, opposition leader Sigmar Gabriel, leader of the Social Democrats, has seized on hte opportunity to gain political advantage.  He says:
"Angela Merkel's nuclear deal is driving people into the streets because it is a stimulus program for political disaffection when the head of a government cuts a backroom deal with four energy bosses that's worth hundreds of billions of euros and safety issues for old nuclear plants are sorted out on the side," Gabriel said. "Those dealings should all be public. ... It would be best if the people could vote on the lifespan extension in a referendum."
Gabriel knows which way the winds are blowing, and not surprisingly, has also called for tighter restrictions on immigration.

His call for a referendum is significant, because Germany doesn't do referenda:
Recent opinion surveys suggest the [nuclear extension] decision is opposed by a clear majority of German voters, with 59 per cent against compared with 37 per cent in favour, according to a poll conducted by Infratest dimap for the ARD state television station. If voters can be persuaded that such a move would save jobs, or help finance renewable energy in the long run, a majority would be in favour.

The opposition parties see the policy as fundamentally unpopular and expect to win substantial support for a revived anti-nuclear campaign. In an interview with Spiegel magazine, Renate Künast, joint parliamentary leader of the Greens, said they would use “all means possible – legal challenges, demonstrations and election campaigns”, to make sure the extension was not approved.

Mr Gabriel’s proposal for a national referendum seems designed more as a tactical move to shock the political establishment than a likely way of blocking the plan. Referendums are barred under the German constitution on the grounds that they undermine parliamentary democracy – and contributed to the rise of the Nazi party in the 1930s.
But if not nuclear then what?  Gabriel has answered that question as well (hint: it is black and dirty).

What is the lesson to take from the current politics in Germany (and elsewhere)?  Even the best laid policy plans are of little use unless they account for the politics of the day and are robust enough to survive the inevitably changing politics of the future.  One obstacle to implementing improved energy policies (that is, those that expand access, reduce cost, and increase security while fostering accelerated decarbonization as a valuable ancillary benefit) is that policy analyses too often ignore unyeilding political realities.

From my vantage point it looks like Merkel's nuclear plan is in deep trouble. Did it have to be?


  1. "For instance, in Sweden's election over the weekend, a lurch to the right has a party with neo-Nazi roots holding the balance of parliamentary power"

    That is because Sweden has mostly been governed by politicians with neo-Marxist roots.

    The old teeter-toter is just the new teeter-toter.

  2. To answer the questions asked in your last sentence, yes, probably.

    Environmentalism has deep cultural roots in Germany, that long predate the environmental movement in the rest of the world. I was working there during the Chernobyl disaster. Mainz, where I was living, was 1000 km from Chernobyl, and while there were a couple of elevated radioactivity measurements in the far south of Bavaria, there was no evidence of any substantial drift of fallout over us. (I was right next door to the MPI for Atmospheric Chemistry, who were doing the readings, so I had an 'in'.)

    At the same time, there was near hysteria. Potassium iodide tablets sold out in the drugstores, and my wife was actually lectured by strangers at a public playground for letting our two very young daughters play outside. The Green Party of course capitalized, with slogans like 'With Nuclear Power, we are all in Chernobyl'. The entire episode removed what lingering respect I had for political environmentalism.

    Even though at the university there was pretty much universal contempt for the Greens (the students and faculty were monolithically SPD), it was clear they had a great deal of influence in the society as a whole. Germans have a national self-image that is very much tied to a somewhat atavistic view of the relation between man and nature, and it amazes me they sustained a nuclear power program for so long.

  3. Regarding Sweden and 'neo-nazis.'

    The Sweden Democrats are nationalists. Everywhere in Europe, anyone who voices concern about immigration is labeled a neo-nazi. Sweden Democrats explicitly support the Swedish social welfare state - hardly right-wing. They are social conservatives, in the proper sense. They want to conserve Swedish culture and the Swedish social model - more simply - they like being Swedes, not citizens of a multi-cultural state that happens to be located in Sweden. For this, they are labeled neo-nazis?

    Pim Fortuyn was a liberal (American sense) gay man who wanted to protect his liberties in a progressive, liberal state against the encroachment of a medieval, reactionary Muslim culture, and for that he, too, was labeled a right wing neo-nazi by the European media elites.

    The Sweden Democrats supported the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten when they published the infamous Muhammed cartoon. It the United States, we call that standing up for free speech and liberty. In Europe, it got them labeled right-wingers.

    When did it become neo-nazi for Swedes to want to live in a Swedish Sweden? The label couldn't be more unfortunate. Kind of like calling a person who favors rational discussion of climate change issues a denier.

  4. The Sweden Democrats have neo-nazi ROOTS, that is for sure, and they have had over their 20 years of existance a large number of individuals that considers themselves to be neo-nazi. That is all facts. There is no factual errors about this in Pielkes Blog (I´m Swedish and involved in politics to some extent so Im knowledgeable on this).

  5. The Germans told the truth about nuclear power.

    Higher cancer risk for children near nuclear power plants found in Germany

    A new study on behalf of the Federal Office for Radiation Protection is the first study to show reliable results: the risk of children under 5 years of age to contract leukaemia increases the closer they live to a nuclear power plant.


    Unlike the British

    Dodging the truth and duping the people- COMARE


    Gerry McCann, who's daughter 'disappeared' in Portugal served on the COMARE committee. He received preferential treatment from Gordon Brown who's brother, Andrew Brown is EDF Energy's Head of Press. EDF willinitially build four, but as many as 10 of Britains's new generation of nuclear power stations.


  6. The new wave of ecofascism -recent Guardian article

    "I have a feeling," Lovelock said, "that climate change may be an issue as severe as a war. It may be necessary to put democracy on hold for a while." His words may be disturbing, but other ecologists have gone much further.

    Take for example Pentti Linkola, a Finnish fisherman and ecological philosopher. Whereas Lovelock puts his faith in advanced technology, Linkola proposes a turn to fascistic primitivism. Their only point of agreement is on the need to suspend democracy. Linkola has built an environmentalist following by calling for an authoritarian, ecological regime that ruthlessly suppresses consumers.

    Largely unknown outside of Finland until the first English translation of his work was published last year, Linkola represents environmentalism pushed to its totalitarian extreme. "An ecocatastrophe is taking place on earth," he writes concluding several pages later that "discipline, prohibition, enforcement and oppression" are the only solution.


    Gerard Harbison

    "Even though at the university there was pretty much universal contempt for the Greens (the students and faculty were monolithically SPD),"

    Interesting. German Greens are more obviously right wing than the British counterparts.Perhaps the don't appeal to educated people The atavistic attitude probably comes from Germany being closer to its pagan / nature roots than the rest of Europe (and the related intellectual romanticism).

    My ecofascist / Nazi page


  7. "A recent study indicated an excess risk of leukaemia among children under the age of 5 years living in the vicinity of nuclear power plants in Germany. We present results relating to the incidence of childhood leukaemia in the vicinity of nuclear power plants in France for the same age range. These results do not indicate an excess risk of leukaemia in young children living near French nuclear power plants."
    D Laurier et al 2008 J. Radiol. Prot. 28 401

  8. David

    That really underlines the independence and honesty of scientists.

  9. Eric -

    Well independence and honesty are assumed, but what it demonstrates to me is that even if you're independent and honest, the epidemiology of rare events is complex, often contradictory, and rarely gives a definitive answer so one shouldn't assume anything on the basis of one paper.

  10. #6 - eric144-

    Nuclear safety studies and associated polemics are every bit as "objective" as global warming alarmism. Admittedly, I have read only one pro-nuclear power book (Prescription for the Planet by Tom Blees) which does debunk some of the studies. It would take more work by me to sort it out but I'm skeptical. Keep in mind that anti nuclear evangelicals are ... evangelicals.

    As a pro nuclear advocate I ought to research this a bit more

    - 2- Gerard
    Australians are anti nuke and our political parties avoid it, the Coalition does tentatively float the question from time to time, Labour won't touch nuclear power development but are happy to export it, The Greens oppose export as well as development.

    As far as I am aware Australians don't have any deep rooted cultural environmental roots, their opposition just comes from historical precedents (Chernobyl, Three Mile Island) that are no longer very relevant, scary movies and a general cultural shift to "low risk" mentality.

    As for the French, they seem to be proud of their technology although I have read frightened of nuclear waste

    btw fast breeder reactors use nuclear waste as fuel and the left over waste from that process is minimal. Tom Blees is even cheeky enough to suggest it could be dumped in the deep sea (shock, horror, the man must be mad)

    btw far more deaths and also nuclear waste (sic) is generated by the coal industry than the nuclear industry

  11. I searched Barry Brook's site on the issue of safety and radiation and found this gem:
    "The additional radiation exposure of those living in the vicinity of NPP is ~0.0002 millisieverts (mSv), versus a background level of 2 to 4 mSv (depending on where you live) — the latter due to everything from cosmic rays, to ground-derived radon emissions, to eating bananas (this last one gives you more radiation than the NPP). So that’s 1/15,000 of your total yearly dosage coming from the ambient levels produced by nuclear power (in the US). Living near a coal-fired power station would give you 100 to 300 times more radiation exposure, and even that is trivial and not the reason coal burning is damaging to your health"
    Radiation – facts, fallacies and phobias

  12. Energy plans are colliding with cultural realities. Nothing new. You need a lot of nerves in democratic processes. We are so used to analyze the world in left - right / green - brown / black & blue, or whatever: in reality it doesn't work all the time. There is a permanent transformation going on which ridicules many analysts. Social democrats, conservatives, greens have to permanently reinvent themselves. Sure, it is dangerous and discomforting when normal compasses don't work (and populists come up and fill the gap). But democracy needs trust, especially in times of profound energy transformations. Angela Merkel does her deal with the nuclear lobby; the protest movement will challenge her. It's a good thing: there is a lot at stake, and its a form of negotiating in public.

  13. The Sweden Democrats have neo-nazi ROOTS,

    Every second party in Europe has Fascist or Marxist roots, provided you define Fascist or Marxist loosely enough. Especially if you define it loosely enough to include merely having a number of Fascist or Marxist members!

    Britain's Labour has had Marxist MPs in their ranks. That hardly makes them Marxists today.

    That really underlines the independence and honesty of scientists.

    Meaning you accept their finding when you agree with them, and bag their honesty when the findings differ from what you want?

    The main issue is mechanism. How do children living near a nuclear plant get leukemia? The plants aren't radioactive themselves. The water the kids drink is taken upstream. The food they eat is not local. How do they get radiated, exactly?

    In fact the only reason to associate nuclear power plants with "teh cancer" is fear of "teh radiation". It's scientifically ludicrous.

    Nuclear power plants have their risks. Leukemia is not one of them.

  14. Mark

    "Meaning you accept their finding when you agree with them, and bag their honesty when the findings differ from what you want?"

    I assume you only patronise those who disagree with you. Remember, the British study was severely questioned.

    David and Bill

    My point was that the British (global warming) and the French (nuclear energy dependant) had reasons for wanting the results to be negative. The Germans don't seem to have an axe to grind. They also made a very major political decision on the basis of the results. Viz. ordering the the phasing out of civil nuclear power generation by 2020 (in 2000).


    I do accept the difficulties in these kinds of studies, nevertheless.

  15. -15- eric

    Thanks for acknowledging difficulties in these studies. I did follow some links to the leukemia study you mentioned, (btw your link doesn't go to it).The authors of the study can't explain the findings in terms of increased radiation.

    Someone who has read the study interpreted as follows:
    "Lets get something straight here. The study did not conclude that the nuclear power plants were the reason for the apparent increase in leukemia rates, and in fact the researchers went out of their way to stress that they could find any causal relationship with the nuclear power plants. But most importantly the study compared those living within five kilometers of nuclear plants to the general population. What it did not do was compare them to a demographically similar control group.

    These power plants were built in highly industrialized areas,the populated living areas around them are not the richest parts of Germany. These zone have many potential carcinogens for other activities, and soil contamination that goes back to the Industrial Revolution. Drawing any conclusion without controlling for these confounding variables, is scientifically suspect."

  16. I assume you only patronise those who disagree with you.

    Yes. If they are quite so blatant in their picking and choosing of which science they will believe.

    Remember, the British study was severely questioned.

    And still at it. Of course it is "questioned". Some people just don't like the answers that science gives.

    So many studies have been done on this the matter should be dead and buried. It lives, like cell phone radiation bogusness, because of fear of "teh radiation".

  17. Bill

    The link went to the political decision I referred to.

    The opinion of a poster on a global warming fan site which advocates nuclear power isn't the most neutral or authoritative source.

  18. The Germans don't seem to have an axe to grind. They also made a very major political decision on the basis of the results. Viz. ordering the the phasing out of civil nuclear power generation by 2020 (in 2000)

    Since the study came out later than 2000, it obviously could have been falsified to support government policy.

    Germany is massively expanding its use of coal and natural gas. These really do kill their neighbours, so they want to deny the nuclear plants' innocence.

    Reporting only the one above-mentioned German study is deceptive, an enumeration of cases favorable to fossil fuel interests without acknowledging other nuclear neighbourhood studies that are unfavorable.

    Leukemia rates are elevated near some nuclear installations and depressed near others, looking overall very like no effect, as Geoff Russell points out at http://www.onlineopinion.com.au/view.asp?article=9509&page=0 .

  19. GRLCowan

    It could also be the case that you are an advocate of nuclear power.


    The new British opposition leader Mr Ed Milli also loves nuclear power. It's because he's an environmentalist. The new kind. The pro nuclear industry, partner is a legal rep for E.ON kind of environmentalist dude.

    The City of London, twinned with Chernobyl.

    Without the CO2 scam, nuclear would be dead and buried.